Things to Remember When Telling Vampire Stories
2011 nears its end, with 2012 to follow. Many the movie, novel, web comic and television series about the undead await us in the future–and if they deal with vampires let us offer a few gentle reminders. Past tellers have sometimes done marvelous examples of how to deal with the undead, examples that too often end up ignored.
Vampires need weaknesses. Otherwise, they’d taken over the world long ago. “Blood Ties” for example portrayed vampires with a territorial instinct that kept them from working together–they actually had to exert willpower not to kill one another in the same city. Likewise damage from sunlight (made-up by show business but handy) or extreme allergies be they to wolfsbane, garlic or vervain serve the same purpose. Killing a vampire should be difficult, but hardly impossible. Yes, this is one of the primary flaws in the world of “Twilight,” although it is in keeping with the ideas Stephenie Meyer wanted to explore. Still, one wonders why the Volturi haven’t simply taken over.
Not all teenagers are pretty. You’d think this wouldn’t be important so much for the genre, wouldn’t you? But when you consider how many vampire tales take place in and around high schools (for thematic as well as marketing reasons) the point becomes clearer. One great hallmark of “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” was its portrayal of high school as a place where kids didn’t fit in, as a lonely world of factions and immature politics. How wonderful to see teenagers like Willow or Jonathan–who looked nothing at all like models! In this “Twilight” proves itself far superior to “The Vampire Diaries,” the latter taking place in a world where no overweight teenagers exist, nor ones who wear glasses or braces, where everyone is just about equal in intelligence and the kind of thoughtless, popular, vicious bullies the rest of us remember from high school simply aren’t to be found. The next high-school based vampire story to be developed would almost certainly turn out better–i.e. more compelling–if the creators took a page from not only “Buffy” but “Glee” and “Joan of Arcadia.”
Cheap guilt means nothing. A pervasive trope in vampire fiction for the past few decades–quite understandably–has been the Reluctant or Guilty Vampire. It combines the horror of assault, parasitism, living death, etc. with the normal emotional reaction of a human being finding himself in that situation. Hence, conflict, the heart and core of drama! Sometimes this plays out brilliantly–as in Louis’ melancholy fatalism in “Interview With the Vampire,” or the desperate loneliness of a child in “Let Me In,” or the difficult personal quest for redemption in “Forever Knight” and “Angel.” But this presupposes genuine, justified guilt. In “Moonlight” we see a vampire detective wracked with horror and guilt–this coming from someone who needs never kill, hasn’t killed, can get blood from enthusiastic donors–in fact, the vampires in that show don’t seem much like monsters at all. So Mick St. John seems…well…foolish. His guilt certainly never makes much emotional sense or impact. Likewise Edward Cullen may have some real horror in his past (when he decided to go kill murdering humans for a few years) but not enough is made of it in the story to justify his moodiness (granted, that remains a matter of nuance). Compare this to Barnabas Collins, whose vampire nature ended up killing his fiancee and nearly every single relative he had!
Vampires are monsters. Okay, I enjoy a good romance as much as the next person (not as much as some, but more than others). I totally get the idea that vampires might well be extremely attractive to their prey. But one can easily go too far in that direction. One of the most powerful scenes in “Buffy” (which, let us face it, achieved hallmark status in this genre, really) was when Angel tried to turn his vamped-out face from Buffy, and she kisses him, saying she hadn’t even noticed. Now, the nosferatu in that show were ugly–snaggle-toothed, animalistic, distinctly demonic. Visually, that always served as a reminder of the horror of what they are. Without some hint of the genuinely evil, a vampire romance almost inevitably turns into syrup. To pursue the food metaphor for a moment, syrup cannot be a meal because it remains a mere condiment. You need something more, at least to have a good meal. A real challenge of course would be to make a vampire utterly horrible–like Graf Orlock in the film “Nosferatu” or the creatures in “30 Days of Night”–and still show someone as falling in love with them. Go rent “Let The Right One In” to see how that might work.
I’d also make a plea on behalf of all vampire nerds everywhere that storytellers come up with some rules and stick to them. Better still if the vampire rules make some kind of sense. Killing one person a night, for example, pretty much means it is impossible to hide the existence of vampires–unless their numbers are very small indeed. Likewise if a single bite transforms, how come we aren’t up to our eyebrows in vampires? Sunlight–does it harm or not, and how much? Do vampires have reflections? Back in the day, much was made of the fact they did not on the t.v. show “Dark Shadows,” except of course when the cinematographer found a cool way to use those reflections! And in the Badham film of “Dracula’ starring Frank Langella, I’m still baffled why the vampire girl cast no reflection in the mirror but did reflect in a pool of water!
But, then, I am a vampire nerd. And proud of it!